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Jo'Burg Days: Ghosts, Steam Trains And Friar Tuck

A message from a “long-lost’’ cousin after 40 years refreshed a host of happy memories for Barbara Durlacher.

Some time ago my story about ‘The Man in the Plastic Bag’ http://www.openwriting.com/archives/2008/06/the_man_in_the_1.php#more was posted in Joburg Days. You may remember this tale of a black man who, for a number of years walked the streets in all weathers with nothing over his nakedness except a couple of sheets of plastic. He was found dead alongside the road, and I wrote a short article wondering how, in this huge modern city, someone in such distress could have been neglected for so long. The story was published in a local community newspaper and the editor told me that no other story had ever generated so much interest.

Amazingly, the story was read by a long-lost cousin and we made contact again after 40 years. As we’re both interested in family history we’ve exchanged memories and some of what I’ve learnt has appeared in Open Writing. In another amazing coincidence a few days ago, another long-lost cousin in Cape Town read the expanded story of our family in Open Writing and with Peter Hinchliffe’s help, put us in touch, and as we chatted, the floodgates of memory opened. Read on to see what we recalled.

The second long-lost cousin in Cape Town, is Toni, daughter of my first cousin Sybil, who some years earlier had married her first sweetheart, Ray Tuck. Sybil was the daughter of my father’s brother Cyril and her childhood years were spent in Nelspruit in the Transvaal Lowveld.

In their younger days, years before they changed direction and went off to manage small hotels and when I was about 8 or 10, my parents and I visited Sybil and Ray in their new house somewhere on the East Rand. I remember it took ages to find the house, even though it was on the Main Reef Road, and the drive seemed to take a very long time. Eventually we found it, but only because Syb had described it as 'like a sugar-cube with a flat roof, and painted white all over'.

As we drew up, Syb and Ray arrived on their motor bikes and even today I can see Syb, excited and exhilarated as they roared up with a tremendous noise on their powerful black shining bikes. Swinging her leg over the saddle, she removed her helmet with a boisterous laugh (the bikes, the helmet and riding astride scandalised my very decorous mother) and after they had put their “darlings” carefully away, they welcomed us into the strange (and to my eyes) ugly and uncomfortable house they lived in.

This residence was the epitome of modernism and actually far in advance of its time. Possibly the original owner admired the Modernistic principles much in vogue in Germany shortly before WWII and had hoped to introduce this new fashion to the provincial folk who lived on the East Rand; fortunately unsuccessfully.

The staircase with its shining steel balustrade rose grandly in front of a double-volume glass-tiled window that distorted everything; the front bulged like a washerwoman without corsets and the flat roof leaked constantly. This roof was the bane of Ray's life, and fixing it formed the basis of every conversation. They moved eventually as they couldn't stand the continued maintenance and upkeep.

On that visit, I also remember badgering Syb to 'put something in my autograph book' and she kindly produced something which at the time I thought was magic. I doubt if you’ll remember, but in those early days around the late 1930s/40s, it was the craze for young girls to have autograph books where they, supposedly, collected the signatures of famous people (goodness knows why). As few of us ever met any famous people, we resorted to asking everyone we met to 'put something in my autograph book' and the darn books were our constant companions.

I had a collection of some excellent hand-drawn caricatures and cartoons, and also some lovely pencil sketches by some very talented people, many of whom spent their lives as clerks in boring offices when they had the talent to do so much else. There were simply no openings for artistic and talented people in those days.

Anyway, I asked Syb to do something and she paged through the newspaper and finally found a suitable picture. It was a cartoon of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, wearing their white gloves and with their charming round ears. She turned the picture over, and with the rounded back of a spoon, rubbed and rubbed until she had transferred all the print to the page and voila there it was - a perfect picture in my autograph book!

In later years my parents and I spent several short holidays visiting Sybil and Ray when they managed and ran several hotels in the Lowveld, including The White River Hotel in the small country town of that name. This sub-tropical area, the doorway to the Kruger National Park supports many large farms producing the sub-tropical fruit and vegetables for which the area is famous. Known as “Johannesburg’s winter kitchen”, thousands of tons of produce were railed to the Highveld from this area on a weekly basis.

A few years later Sybil and Ray moved to The Fig Tree Hotel in nearby Nelspruit, a thriving country town and the commercial hub of the Lowveld. A busy and vibrant place with lots of passing traffic, prosperous farmers and many trades and businesses, it was also the junction of the railway line from the Transvaal. The connection to the Delagoa Bay Railway line began in Nelspruit and passengers for Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) disembarked from the South African Railways trains and, if they were proceeding to Mocambique, crossed the platform to board the train for Delagoa Bay, then a Portuguese colony and the nearest seaport to the Transvaal.

The Fig Tree Hotel was situated directly opposite the railway station, and it was a hive of activity most of the day, but never more so than when the twice-weekly goods and passenger trains from Johannesburg arrived. From here, the train continued east to Lourenco Marques where the occasional passenger ship docked on its return to England. During the Anglo-Boer war, Winston Churchill, a war correspondent for a London newspaper, was captured by the Boers. When he escaped, he chose this railway as the most direct route to the coast as the following graphic account explains.

...“In November of that year Churchill joined an armoured train reconnaissance heading towards Colenso North where Boer patrols had been spotted. Boers just north of Frere in Natal ambushed the train. A huge stone had blocked the line. When the train hit it, it was derailed. General PJ Joubert decided that Churchill had played too active a role in the skirmish. So he was taken to Pretoria (near Johannesburg) to be imprisoned.
Churchill did not stay captive for long, however. Within two months he had escaped and stowed away on a coal train heading east in the direction of Mozambique. The following evening the train stopped at Clewer siding near Witbank (the Transvaal Highveld). Churchill decided to knock on some doors in search of food.

Fortune definitely favors the brave for the door he chose to knock on was that of John Howard. He was an Englishman and manager of the Transvaal and Delagoa Bay Colliery. Churchill was fed well and later hidden in the underground stables of the mine. The Boer forces were searching high and low. Still later he hid behind some packing cases in the office.

General Joubert was not overly concerned about Churchill's escape. He actually offered less cash reward (27 shilling) for Churchill's recapture that the British officers were paying for a bottle of Scotch. "He is just 'n klein koerant-skrywertjie", (a little bit of a newspaperman) was Joubert's opinion of the man who would later become the British Prime Minister.

Six days after his arrival at Clewer, he was hidden on a railway truck loaded with wool and bound for Mozambique. The train finally reached its destination two days later on 21 December.

The British Consul was not immediately convinced of Churchill's identity. But after two days a cable reached Howard at Witbank. It read, "Goods arrived safely."

(With many thanks to the compilers of the Roll of Honour of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission/roll of honour.com.2002 )

In Lourenco Marques (now Maputo), the railway station was designed by Gustav Eiffel of the Paris landmark fame, and embodied the best traditions of Portuguese colonial architecture, but the grimy and crowded Nelspruit station was workmanlike in the extreme, and no-one seemed to have a moment to consider making any changes.

Built in colonial style, these whitewashed country hotels were long and low with colourful gardens and the occasional swimming pool where guests and their friends cooled off during the stifling days. Wide verandas provided plenty of space for the drinkers, who sat and watched the comings and goings of the passing throng. Everyone knew everyone else’s business, and with little motor traffic, pedestrians were a great font of gossip as they sauntered along the well-maintained pavements under the shade of the huge flamboyant trees with their ferny foliage and bright scarlet fronds of blossom, shrill as a bird’s call in the noonday heat.

In the years when we visited there, the hotels were very popular with Sales Reps or 'Travellers', whose job was to drive from one small dorpie to another with their ‘sample’ cases filled with goods and take orders from the local shopkeepers. These salesmen loved their three 'Bs': Booze, a good Breakfast and a comfortable Bed, and Ray Tuck of the Fig Tree provided all three. His hotels were famous amongst the travelling community, and during these holidays my parents and I were also able to enjoy their excellent table and entertaining company.

At that time it was still customary to eat three large meals a day. Breakfast consisted of two kinds of porridge, a fish dish, eggs-to-order, lashings of hot toast and plenty of tea and coffee. For lunch, there was another fish course, an entrée, cold meats and a curry as well as hot and cold puddings. The first courses at dinner were a repeat of lunch, but the mains were usually roast lamb or beef, or a large steak. And all this, including accommodation, for the astonishing price of 12/6d a day!!

Time passed and as the weather in the Lowveld is always so humid, Ray had the idea of varying the menu by providing a salad table, and with the growers on his doorstep, he established a chain of suppliers who sent him crisp, fresh lettuce, avocados, tomatoes, oranges and bananas. Ray served his excellent salads in gleaming glass bowls on a sparkling white tablecloth as an accompaniment to the other courses, and by the end of the meal not a scrap was left. The luncheon guests loved his food as much as they loved their expanding waistlines, and his fame grew daily.

Another small Lowveld town is Barberton, a name recognised around the world at one time, as it was the site of the first Transvaal gold find and where the first South African Stock Exchange was built. Today, only the frontage of the original building exists, a strange compromise between Victorian Rococo and “mining-town-brutal” and without its commemorative plaque, this lonely facade would have been demolished years ago. I remember staying at a hotel in Barberton for a night or two with my parents, and the contrast between this and hotels managed by Ray was unmistakable.

Nelspruit also boasted the Paragon Hotel and I have a faint recollection that Ray worked there for a short time. But the venture proved unhappy and soon after this, he returned to The Fig Tree Hotel. Here he converted some ground-floor rooms facing the Paragon Hotel into a street bar. Named Tuck’s Tavern, it soon became one of the most popular in town and the owner of the rival hotel must have squirmed every time it was mentioned.

Some years earlier, as the following story from their daughter Toni relates, Ray and Sybil had also managed the Wayside Inn near Waterval Boven.

“Owned by a Mr Venn, it was, I think, the first and certainly the most “colourful” of their three enterprises since it was in an isolated spot, pretty rough and ready (a previous manager routinely sieved the soup for cockroaches, without any attempt to oust them from the kitchen!) and on the railway line to Lourenco Marques. In fact, there was a little wooden(?) building in the grounds known as the ‘Krugerhof’ which, in my folk’s day, had two chests on its stoep, supposedly part of the containers that transported the “Kruger millions” to LM, from which port Kruger reputedly fled into exile. There was even a rumour that the “millions” were buried in the area. My mother, however, didn’t believe this; an elderly official in the Smuts government who visited the hotel at some stage told her that such “millions” as had indeed existed went to Holland as the price of Kruger’s entry as an exile. There were also resident ghosts – supposedly a British soldier from the Boer war and a nurse, who would appear beneath a large tree in the grounds. There was a Boer war soldier’s grave somewhere in the area. My father swore that he saw them once, on a misty night, when he went out to get the hotel’s generator back up after it had cut out – but then mist on a dark night can be very deceptive!”

During my early married years we stayed a night or two at the Wayside Inn and found it a delightful spot, and during this brief visit we also heard the colourful stories, but without the embellishments of the ghosts. If I recall, it had very attractive grounds and was built of dressed stone, as so many houses were in the early days. As Toni mentions, the main railway line ran through the property about 200 yds from the back of hotel, and unsuspecting guests nearly fell out of bed when the goods train from Nelspruit came rocketing through at midnight. Perhaps this was a factor in the demise of the hotel after a historic and colourful past.

Another memory is a holiday that we (the Symons family) spent in East London in 1945. We stayed at Craighall, a rather down-at-heel "boarding house" which Dad said was his childhood home. If my memory serves me, and this happened nearly 70 yrs ago, the house stood on a rise overlooking the Buffalo River and the harbour. Another cousin mentions it was built on Inverleith Terrace and Symons Street.

I can remember poky Victorian bedrooms with none of the built-in cupboards so commonplace today. Every bedroom had a dark varnished wardrobe, a dressing table and a bed squeezed into the inadequate space. I don’t think any of them had washbasins, and the single bathroom in the house was shared by all the guests; it was all very uncomfortable.

Downstairs, there was a large hall with an impressive wooden stairway, an old-fashioned dining room, a drawing room and a parlour. The drawing- and dining- rooms were combined to make sufficient space for meals and there was a piano in one of the rooms. This was played fairly competently by one of the guests who accompanied herself singing the popular songs of the day. My favourite was the one with a picture of a Ginger Rogers lady on the cover, dressed in a floaty white evening dress with head thrown back provocatively as she joined in the singing.

There were wide open verandas on the ground and upper floors, and my Mother hated the place, although she had the sense not to make too much of a fuss. She knew that it held so many cherished memories for Dad, and it would have hurt his feelings to mention it.

Another of my memories was making friends with the nice black waiters. Before meals, they sat on the veranda near the kitchen where they folded the starched white damask napkins and filled the salt and pepper shakers. They taught me how to roll butter-balls between two wooden paddles, and I always made a point to get back from Orient Beach in time to join my pals for a session of butter-ball rolling just in time for lunch.

Another thing Dad told me was that his mother (the dread Charlotte Campbell, my grandmother) kept two sjamboks, one at the head and the other at the foot of the stairs, and if any of the kids had been naughty, she usually managed to give them a jolly good wack either going up or coming down. Excellent way to enforce discipline in a big family of naughty children. No wonder she was held in such awe by everyone!

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